The rainy season in Cambodia starts in June and runs until November, bringing 75% of the kingdom’s annual rainfall and temperatures that can drop as low as 22 degrees Celsius. Future politicians take note — this sentence is a prime example of how a statement can be both absolutely true and quite misleading all at the same time. In practice, for the last couple of years at least, the rainy season gets off to a piddling start and then suddenly remembers what it’s all about towards the end and dumps it all on our heads in a panicky fit of rampant precipitation. The level and bare factuality of the statement above do nothing to reveal the turbulent variances behind it, which mean that a Cambodian rainy season experienced in June is a very different beast from rainy season experienced in September.
So at the beginning of the rainy season this year, like last year, in Siem Reap we actually saw very little rain at all, unless you count the oceans of sweat cascading down your back brought on by the soul-strangling humidity. And that thing about the temperatures dropping to 22 degrees, well it is true, but it has to rain before that happens. Occasionally a cloud has meandered across the horizon, like a lost migratory crane. Espied from the ground, great surges of hope have swelled up in the chests of all, only to be viciously crushed as the cloud has floated away or evaporated. Cruel cumulus. So, if you were being a pedant about it, it’s not really rainy season as such; more a ‘Merciful God, please just kill me now’ season.
And now, now in September we may be sitting on the cusp of the great dump. The last three weeks have seen bigger and better storms in the afternoons, bringing with them the odd power cut to be sure, but also that blissful temperature drop in the aftermath when the whole world gleams with awakened possibilities and, released from the oppressive humidity, your mind and spirit skip gaily along the road beside you demanding ice-cream and balloons. It’s a beautiful moment.
But the last few days have seen another change. The rain has been more fitful, not quite as powerful, but longer lasting. The Siem Reap River is rising with the current, creating fat eddies as it rushes past the bridges. The water is edging closer and closer to the banks where locals are lined up with nets to catch all the fish whizzing past. Pictures are already circulating of parts of Banteay Srei under water, and bricks and sandbags are being hauled out by nervous business owners.
Those who were here last year are just a little bit twitchy right now. Two months, during which most of the town centre and environs was inundated, became a little trying in the end. I remember being collared in the street by an expat I’d never seen before who clutched himself as he wailed “I can’t take it any more!” And the expats had much less to worry about than visitors whose hard-worked-for holidays were being washed away or, more importantly, locals whose gardens, animals and fields were swept off towards the fattening Tonle Sap. More than that, 250 Cambodians lost their lives as flooding drowned the country and 50,000 families were displaced. It was a catastrophe, one which barely registered on the international radar as the foreign journalists were far more interested in Thailand – someone should have told them that the wine here is cheaper.
The river is rising again, and we’re waiting for it. Better prepared this time for sure, and everyone is certain that it could not possibly be as bad again (that ‘everyone’ is taken from a very reliable statistical sample of me). It’s the Year of the Dragon which, according to Chinese tradition, is supposed to bring good fortune. Cambodians are not so sure of their dragons though and associate the astrological sign with water, and flooding. It’s considered a powerful sign, bringing success for those born in that year and, it would seem, the risk of ruin for those who live through it. Perhaps I’d better go get some sandbags after all.
So what should you do if you’re planning a trip to Siem Reap? Nothing at all, for now. Bring it on. And stay tuned.
By Nicky Sullivan
Last updated on 8th September, 2012.
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